Monday, March 10, 2014
Carolyn Hester - Carolyn Hester
Columbia CS 8596
Carolyn Hester's third album and her debut album for Columbia Records. In my post on "Joan Baez in Concert Part 1" I mentioned that I've never understood Baez's immense popularity during the folk boom. As a corollary to that, I understand even less why Baez became a big star and Carolyn Hester did not. Hester seemingly had it all. She had a terrific voice, more relaxed and expressive than Baez and equally polished and powerful. She was a good guitarist. She had better taste in material, earthier and less corny. She was just as attractive as Baez, perhaps even more so. Bob Dylan was smitten with her, he called her "double barrel beautiful" in his memoir "Chronicles Volume One." In his book he discussed the circumstances that led to him playing harmonica on three cuts on this album and gave her credit for introducing him to the album's producer John Hammond and thus launching his own career on Columbia Records. Dylan also expressed envy towards Richard Fariña for being married to Hester. Prior to marrying Mimi Baez, Fariña was indeed married to Hester and in David Hajdu's book "Positively 4th Street" he paints an unflattering picture of Fariña using Hester to launch his own music career. Hajdu claims it was Fariña's idea for Dylan to play on this album but Hester disputes this and I believe her version. However it happened, Dylan did make his recording debut on this record, which is largely why this record is hard to find and very pricey. Dylan's presence on this record overshadows Hester practically, which is a shame because this is a wonderful record in its own right. Besides Dylan, Hester is also accompanied by guitarist Bruce Langhorne and bassist Bill Lee for much of the album. The album opens with Albert E. Brumley's classic gospel song "I'll Fly Away" which features Dylan, Langhorne and Lee adding instrumental support to Hester's robust vocal. It is one of my favorite tracks on the album. Dylan makes the most of his opportunity blowing up a storm. The religious theme continues with "When Jesus Lived in Galilee" which was popularized by John Jacob Niles who collected the song in Kentucky. "Los Biblicos" is derived from "Los Bilbilicos" an old song in Ladino, the Jewish language derived from medieval Spanish. Hester sings the lyrics popularized by Theodore Bikel which are considerably different from traditional versions although the imagery of the songs are similar featuring unhappy lovers listening to nightingales sing. This hauntingly beautiful music has an exotic Middle Eastern flavor that reflects its Sephardic origin and the interplay of the guitars is exquisite. If you don't believe that Hester could sing as well as Baez, check out her gorgeous vocal on this song. "Yarrow" is a ballad of Scottish origin collected by Francis Child that is generally known by the title "The Dowie Dens of Yarrow." It is a stirring tale of a ploughboy vying with 9 gentlemen for the love of a lady, who is attacked by the gentlemen. He defeats them all and then is treacherously stabbed in the back by the lady's brother. It is another one of my favorite tracks on the album. Pushed along by the two guitarists playing fast-paced runs, Hester's passionate vocal brings the old song to life. "Dink's Song" will be familiar to those who have seen the Coen Brothers' film "Inside Llewyn Davis" where it is heard several times. The bluesy song was first documented by John Lomax in Texas in the early 1900s. It was also part of Dylan's early repertoire and appears on the bootlegs identified as the "Minneapolis Hotel Tape" recorded in 1961 (you can hear its first legitimate release on "The Bootleg Series Vol. 7.") Hester's vocal really sends me, she sings it with such feeling. "Swing and Turn Jubilee" is a lively dance song made popular by Jean Ritchie who collected it in Kentucky. She is joined again by Dylan, Langhorne (on fiddle) and Lee who provide considerable propulsion for the tune. "Once I Had A Sweetheart" is a folk song that was popular in the Appalachians although it is apparently of English or Scottish origin given its resemblance to the traditional ballads "As Sylvie Was Walking" and "Green Grow the Lilacs." I first heard it on Pentangle's version on "Basket of Light" and it remains one of my favorite Pentangle songs, but Hester's performance is equally wonderful. Her stunning vocal gives me chills and for me it is the best track on the album. According to Hajdu, Dylan taught Hester "Come Back, Baby" because she wanted to learn a blues song for her album. The song was written by Walter Davis and was recorded many times, my favorite version being Ray Charles' performance on his debut album for Atlantic. Hester sings it convincingly, her Texas background serves her well on this tune. Dylan's harmonica adds some color to the song although his solo, which is practically just a single sustained note, does expose his limitations as a harmonica player. "Dear Companion" is another Appalachian song popularized by Jean Ritchie. It features a broken hearted girl singing about an unfaithful lover and Hester sings it with much tenderness and feeling. It is one of her best vocals on the album, it cuts right through me. "Galway Shawl" is an Irish folk song that Hester sings a cappella. It is another excellent performance. "Pobre De Mi" is more commonly known as "Por Un Amor" a Mexican Ranchera style song by Gilberto Parra. I remember hearing it on my father's mariachi records when I was a kid and Linda Ronstadt also did a cover of it on "Canciones de mi Padre." Hester sings it capably in Spanish demonstrating her range and versatility. Langhorne's playing adds a lot to the song as well, some of his best work on the record. "Virgin Mary" is an African-American spritual song that is also known as "Pretty Little Baby." It is a Christmas song about the birth of Jesus. Hester sings it beautifully but it is my least favorite track. It reminds me of Joan Baez, who had it in her early repertoire. I just love this record, it is one of my favorite folk records of the 1960s. Hester is magnificent but some credit should also go to Bruce Langhorne whose tasteful accompaniment does a lot to enhance the atmosphere and dynamic quality of Hester's sound. This did not go unnoticed by Richard Fariña who would later employ Langhorne for a similar effect on his own records. If there was any justice in this universe, this record would have made Hester a big star like Baez. I guess she did get the last laugh though, because most of her records are now pricey collectables and you can find Baez albums in the bargain bin. For the typical price of a nice first pressing of this album in a used record store, you can buy just about every album Joan Baez ever recorded. I was fortunate enough to find a good quality first pressing for about the price of 4 or 5 used Joan Baez albums which I consider one of my best scores ever. I don't usually endorse pricey collectables especially when there is a reasonably priced CD alternative, but this record is just about worth the price. Hester's voice was made for vinyl, this is a great sounding record. Recommended to fans of early Sandy Denny.